How to Apply Choice and Voice in Diverse Classrooms

Voice and Choice image
Student Voice and Choice

Voice and Choice

Voice and Choice are the two core tenets of Student-Center-Learning, according to Christa Green and Christopher Harrington, authors of the “How Implementing Voice and Choice Can Improve Student Engagement” article.

Green and Harrington explore voice and choice in depth “to understand why implementing Student-Centered principles into the learning environment can improve student engagement and make teaching and learning, no matter what environment you and your students find yourself in, more student focused.”

Student Choice

Choice Image
Student Choice

From Green and Harrington’s first post of the student-centered learning blog series, “What Exactly is Student-Center-Learning?” defines students’ choice as providing options and allowing students to choose what works for them.

Green and Harrington describe giving students the choice to provide learners with the opportunity to tap into their passions and strengths, and giving students the ability to choose:

  • The way they want to learn content
  • The process they used to learn content
  • When they learn the content and/or
  • How to demonstrate their understanding of the content

This way, they can deviate from what everyone is doing and learn so makes sense to them.

Improving Student Engagement

Green and Harrington believe that lack of student engagement can lead to inequalities in self-discipline and motivation, and/or not having a workspace at home conducive to learning.

Green and Harrington state that “in fact, the disengagement of students is a challenge for schools, whether virtual or face-to-face”.

When students have a choice, it can increase engagement, student performance, and students’ perceived value of their learning.

Student Voice: Encouraging Student Agency

Voice Image
Student Voice

Green and Harrington define voice as students who can shape and design their own learning, co-creating their learning plan or pathway. 

Giving students voice may involve encouraging students to: 

  • share their ideas or understanding,
  • design their own project or unit, 
  • set goals and monitor their own learning, and/or
  • lead a conference, discussion, or presentation.

When students are active participants in their education, taking responsibility for their learning, and being given some control, it is called Student Agency. The concept of student agency is related to voice.

The control should vary from grade level to grade level with student agency. Remember control that is age appropriate for students to have. 

Green and Harrington emphasize that “It is important to note the overlap with voice, student agency, and choice. Here is one way to think about it: choice encourages students to choose the path or process that works best for them. Voice is when students are responsible for or included in designing their learning options.”

Green and Harrington remind us that “Choice, voice, and student agency are all ways in which students are encouraged to take ownership of their learning.”

Empower and Motivate Students, giving them Voice and Choice throughout the Learning Process

From Avid Open Access, the article “Ed Tip: Student Voice and Choice explains Empowering students with “choice” means students have some say in the who, what, why, when, where, or how of the learning process. When we give students “voice,” we allow them to express their learning preferences, as well as insights about themselves, their opinions, their perspectives, and their identities. This allows students to see themselves as an important part of the learning process. —“

Avid’s article explains the integration ideas of Voice and Choice. It suggests that as you begin your planning, assess how much voice and choice makes sense for the current learning situation. Start by identifying the core requirements of the standard or lesson you cannot change. What must students do? Then where do you have freedom to adapt the learning experience? These are often places where you can offer voice and choice. One of the most common places to offer choice is to allow students to decide how they want to demonstrate their learning.

To amplify opportunities for student ownership and input consider moving toward an inquiry- or project-based learning approach. Both strategies are student-centered and student driven.


Green and Harrington sum up the best about voice and choice:

“Giving students voice and choice—the opportunity to choose to learn the way they learn best and direct some aspects of their learning—helps make students feel personally invested in their learning and plays a role in shaping and creating it, rather than simply being delivered to them.”

How to Integrate Assessment Best Practices into Project-Based Learning

Building Blocks of PBL

Check out Building Blocks of PBL Video

Lesson Plan Check List for PBL

Jennifer Pieratt, author of Project-Based Learning: Assessment and Other Dirty Words, introduces deeper learning in the video The Building Blocks of Project-Based Learning. The Six Competencies are the building blocks of Project-Based Learning, and Pieratt uses it to give tips on how to integrate assessment best practices into your projects.

Deeper learning is an umbrella term for the skills and knowledge that students must possess to succeed in 21st century jobs and civic life. The deeper learning framework includes six competencies essential to prepare students to achieve at high levels. Six Competencies are:

  1. Master core academic content
  2. Think critically and solve complex problems
  3. Work collaboratively
  4. Communicate effectively
  5. Learn how to learn
  6. Develop academic mindsets

The foundation of deeper learning is mastery of core academic content, whether in traditional subjects such as mathematics or in interdisciplinary fields, which merge several key fields of study. Students are expected to be active participants in their education. Ideally, they are immersed in a challenging curriculum that requires them to acquire new knowledge, apply what they have learned, and build upon that to create new knowledge.

Start With the End in Mind

To master core academic content, students must develop and draw from a baseline understanding of knowledge in an academic discipline, and transfer knowledge to other situations. According to Pieratt (2018), a common best practice in teaching is to plan with the end in mind (known as Backward Design). Pieratt states “High-quality PBL is grounded in these same foundations:” (pg. 2)

  • Begin by deciding what the final product will be.
  • Ask what knowledge students will need to master.
  • Determine what skills students will need to develop to complete this final product.

For students to know and understand the content knowledge and skills, teachers must be clear on what content they will need to learn to complete the project. Also, you must identify what district or school performance assessments will need to be integrated into the project.

Build Your Rubric: Summative Assessment Tool

Once the content and skills have been identified, students must master the project for skills identified. This is the time to build your rubric. Pieratt recommends building your rubric based on expert tools, rather than coming up with your own from scratch. Pieratt’s favorite Open Education (assessment) Resources for 21st-century skills (which are embedded in PBL) are:

Pieratt recommends reviewing your rubric on these websites and identifying one row from two to three rubrics that highlight the nuanced, 21st-Century skills and content knowledge that students will develop in your project.

Building Rubric Rows

Pieratt (2018) suggests “Copy and paste the descriptors from the expert rubrics into your own document. At this point, you have 2-3 rows of your rubric already created. Next, you’ll visit your content standards, or perhaps your district assessment tools, and drop the language from these sources into the remaining rows of your rubric. Your summative assessment tool will end up being anywhere from 4-8 rows. To see an example, check out these PBL lessons done with Boeing, which all include rubrics in the teacher materials.” (pg. 2)

Engineering Design Process Video


Benchmarks are the digestible chunks that break down your project and allow students to provide you with deliverables they reflect on and formatively assess, using 1-2 rows from your rubric. Sample benchmarks for a Public Service Announcement are listed below.

Benchmark Image
Benchmark Example

Calendar It Out

Pieratt (2018) suggests “Once you’ve identified your benchmarks, you know the project milestones, which will allow you to develop a project calendar for planning logistics. But more importantly, it will allow you to cross-check that you are formatively assessing and providing formal feedback to students at multiple points throughout the project. This step is critical in high-quality PBL, because it serves as a “safety net” to ensure that students are mastering content before moving forward. For more on formative assessment, check out Tch’s Formative Assessment Deep Dive.” (pg. 4) (To access Teaching Channel’s Formative Assessment Deep Dive video you need to subscribe to their membership)

Pieratt (2018) says “This step also affords you the opportunity to re-teach if needed, and better differentiate teaching and learning throughout the project process. Assessing and receiving feedback multiple times in a project allows students to fully develop their content mastery and skills, therefore moving to the right columns on your rubric.” (pg. 4)


When you embrace the assessment best practices into Project-Based Learning, it truly allows students to have ownership over their learning. When we’re upfront with students about what we expect from them (through tools such as rubrics), learning doesn’t feel like a mystery.

How to Craft Driving Questions That Drive Projects Learning

Driving Questions

What is driving questions?

A “mission Statement” of a project is called Driving Questions, according to Tony Vincent, author of “Crafting Questions That Drives Project“. Vincent (2014) believes “It captures the heart of a project by providing purpose using clear and compelling language.”

Driving questions pose simply state real world dilemmas. They pose predicaments that students find interesting and want to answer. The question drives students to discuss, inquire, and investigate the topic. It should push them toward a production or solution. Students learn important content and skills when investigating the question and sharing their answers, according to Vincent.

You can start with a topic or learn standards to develop a driving question. The driving question should require students to learn skills and content to answer an interesting question.

How to Craft a Driving Question

Andrew Miller, in his article “In Search of Driving Questions“, recommends ideas of how to craft a great Driving Questions, since teachers often get stuck trying to come up with a great one, because there are so many considerations in the design process that inform the crafting of an effective driving question.

Miller provides ideas for how to resolve these difficulties and craft a strong question for your project.


Teachers often ask, “What is the difference between driving questions and essential questions?” Miller (2017) answers, “It comes down to intent. In my discussions with Jay McTighe, co-author of Understanding by Design—the book that developed the idea of the essential question—I came to the conclusion that a driving question might fall in Stage 1 (Desired Outcomes) or Stage 3 (Learning Plan) of the Understanding by Design framework. The desired outcomes focus on learning, and thus include skills and knowledge we want students to learn, as well as questions directly connected to that learning. An essential question is always in Stage 1, as it aligns to desired learning results.”

Miller believes the use and intent of a driving question is intended to be a tool to engage students. It’s part of the learning plan and a hook to engage students. An essential question, while provocative and intended to lead to inquiry, need not be the hook. A teacher might use every essential question with their students, but the driving question is always used with students during instruction throughout the project.

Miller (2017) states “Teachers use driving questions in learning activities to direct the students’ inquiry and increase their engagement. In fact, the driving question operationalizes the challenge, which is part of the learning plan. A driving question may have many essential questions connected to it or that come out of the inquiry process.”


Miller provides these suggestions for generating powerful Driving Questions:

Focus on Action: As I wrote in a previous article, verbs can be powerful tools for student engagement with questions. While tell might be appropriate, maybe convince or advocate are better actions to take. Think about using powerful, action-oriented verbs.

Remember Age Appropriateness: One refinement consideration is the age and maturity of your students. A product-oriented question might be too wordy for younger students. And we don’t want the driving question to be too academic for students. For older students, we might be more provocative with the questions. Consider what your students will understand and find engaging.

Try a Round Robin: Sometimes the best help is right next to us—our colleagues. One powerful strategy that helps us generate new ideas is a Round Robin, where we pass ideas around a table or large group. Write a driving question for your project and pass it to a colleague. That colleague writes another possible question. The paper is passed to another colleague, and the process continues until the paper is filled with driving questions. You can use the many ideas to affirm your thinking, adjust your question, or create a brand-new one.

Give the Question to a Student: We craft and refining driving questions for students. Test the driving question you’ve created on students and see how they react. Take a small group of students aside for a focus group, or just share it in a casual conversation. Will every student jump up and down about it? No, but we can at least have students say, “I guess that sounds cool.”

Create the Question With Students: If you and your students are up for it, take time to create the question in class. You might use a method like the Question Formulation Technique to have students generate many questions on a topic or focus statement, and then help narrow that list to one overarching driving question. Or have students create questions, narrow them down to a short list yourself, and then have students vote on the one they should investigate as a class. It’s fine to give students a driving question, but consider challenging them to be agents in creating it.

Art of Developing Driving Questions

Vincent (2014) provides Types of Driving Questions to help teachers find structure:

📐 Solve a Problem: There’s a real-world predicament with multiple solutions.

  • How can we stop phantom traffic jams?
  • How can we beautify the vacant lot across the street for $200?
  • What’s the best way to stop the flu at our school?
  • Design a better lunch menu for our school.
  • Design a safe and sturdy bridge to replace one in our city.

🎓 Educational: The purpose of the project is to teach others.

  • How can we teach second graders about helpful insects?
  • Create a campaign to teach senior citizens how to use an iPad.
  • What should the students at our school know about being respectful?

👍 Convince Others: Students persuade a specified audience to do something or change their opinions.

  • Create a public service announcement (PSA) that persuades teens to drink more water.
  • Drive yourself to define a question, and then prove it to your classmates.
  • Convince grocery shoppers to return their shopping carts.
  • How can we convince our principal that we should have a party in December?

🌏 Broad Theme: The project tackles big ideas.

  • What does it mean to read?
  • How conflicts lead to change?
  • How does math influence art?
  • How do writers persuade others?
  • How are good and evil depicted in different cultures?

💬 Opinion: Students need to consider all sides of an issue to form and justify their opinions.

  • Should pets be allowed to attend class?
  • Why has a woman never been a U.S. president?
  • What makes a good astronaut?

🚥 Divergent: Students make predictions about alternative timelines and scenarios.

  • What if Rosa Parks gave up her seat?
  • What if the world ran out of oil tomorrow?
  • How might your city change if the climate became an average of 10°F warmer?
  • What if the USA switched to the metric system?

🚀 Scenario-Based: Students take on a fictional role with a mission to accomplish.

  • You’re a NASA engineer, and you build a moon base. What are the ten most important things to include, and why?
  • Imagine you are King George. What would you have done differently to keep American part of England?
  • You are the CEO of a company designing a new social media app. Present a business plan to your investors that explains how your company will make money.
  • You’ve been hired to revamp your local shopping mall. Come up with a plan to increase business.
  • How would you spend $1,000,000 to help your community?

🚧 Scaffolded Around Framing Words: BIE has a tool to help you develop driving questions called a Tubric. It provides possible framing words, actions, audience, and purpose. If you’d rather not take the time to construct a tube, you could use Rhoni McFarlane’s Developing Inquiry Questions chart, or TeachThought’s PBL Cheat Sheet.

  • How can I create a campaign to reduce bullying in my school? (From Rhoni McFarlane)
  • How can we find a solution to permanently reduce litter in our school? (also, from Rhoni McFarlane)
  • How can we as first graders create geocaching sites to promote physical fitness in our neighborhood? (From Washington Discovery Academy)

So, the Big Deal IS?

Tony Vincent (2014) made a good point:

“A driving question guides a project, which can take days, weeks, or months to complete. It’s a big deal. You want to make sure your question is a good one. How do you know if a question will push students toward a quality project? Do the project yourself! If you do your own project ahead of time, you might encounter some bumps in the road that you didn’t anticipate, giving you the chance to refine your question or modify your assessment instrument. If you do your project alongside students, you can model thinking skills and perseverance. By doing your own project, you’re showing your students that the driving question is such a big deal, even if you want to answer it.”

Plaster You Driving Question

In the hall way, on the wall, on the door —.

Vincent says:

“As the leader of your classroom, you are in the best position to know what will work with your students. You know a lot about their interests and abilities. You know the time you have, the resources available, your curriculum, and the learning standards. Considering all this and concocting a meaningful question that will spur students to investigate and learn is no easy task. But, since a driving question can make or break a project, it’s worth the effort.”

Vincent cites Phillip Schlechty, who says teachers need to ask themselves, “What is it that I am trying to get others to do, and what reasons might they have for doing such things?” Answering a well-crafted driving question can be a terrific reason for learning!

The next blog explores integrating assessment best practices into PBL

What You Need to Know 8 Key Elements of Project Based Learning

A Public Product and Sustain Inquiry

A good project must be meaningful to the students. It also has to fulfill an educational purpose. But that’s not all. Overall, there are 8 elements essential for any project to be successful:

According to The Key Element of Project Based Learning article,

The key elements of project-based learning are:

Key Elements of PBL image
8 Key Elements of PBL

There is more to project-based learning than just giving students a project to do. Most practitioners agree that to satisfy the requirements of being a genuine PBL lesson, many key elements need to be present.

Key skills and knowledge

During the PBL lessons, students should learn more than just language. They should also learn information and content related to the topic of the project. This can be done in the form of research using the internet, library, or even through interviewing relevant people.

Students should also develop a wide range of skills, including team working and collaboration.

Sustained inquiry

PBL instruction usually happens over a prolonged period, and so is carried out during many lessons. This can cause timetabling problems. It can be best to keep 15-20 minutes of the lesson for PBL work and develop the project for many weeks.


This is an important aspect of PBL and is key to motivating the students. If they feel the project is not based on a relevant and authentic problem, they are much less likely to get involved and engaged with the work.

A public product or outcome

There are many possibilities for the outcome of the project work.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • A presentation
  • A video
  • A play
  • A book or ebook
  • An app or piece of software
  • A work of art (picture, sculpture or piece of music)
  • A useful product

Student voice

It’s important that the teacher takes a step back and lets the students direct the projects. Teachers can be tempting to step in, direct and redirect, but this undermines the ultimate goals of PBL.


Reflection and self-evaluation can be difficult for students who are more familiar with being evaluated. Many students may need help to develop reflective ability. Make it clear that their ability to be self-critical and improve themselves is one of the criteria that you will use to assess their progress.

A challenging problem

There are many types of problems you can base PBL around.

Remember that students don’t have to fix the problems, they just need to create some form of document that offers a solution to the problem

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Creating an invention that addresses an everyday problem
  • Starting some kind of company that serves a particular need
  • Addressing an environmental problem
  • Create a weekly or monthly magazine or podcast
  • Design the perfect school

You can find more suggestions here: 10 Ready-to-Borrow Project Ideas

Critique and revision

This can be a difficult area for students to handle meaningfully. Giving constructive feedback to peers is a skill and one that needs to be developed. Both the ability to ask for and offer useful feedback is also an important part of working collaboratively in teams.

Part of your PBL cycle of instruction should include tips and useful expressions to help structure constructive feedback.


PBL Projects : Staying on Top of It

Rebecca Chambers, author of Operation Project Based Classroom, How Do I Stay on Top of All These Projects article had some ups and downs of her Changing the World projects two months in. She is excited to share what is happening in her classroom with anyone who will listen, and “then there are days that I drive home ready to burst into tears because I feel so out of control”. Rebecca’s experience with PBL is a good example of a teacher who struggles with PBL at the beginning and paints a picture of how she deals with it.

Chambers explains, “Managing a project-based classroom is probably my biggest challenge right now. I am by no means an expert at all. In this post, I will outline how I am trying to keep it all together.”

Chambers took her cue from Don Wettrick’s blueprint in Pure Genius and “embarked on our project based learning by looking for issues around the school that the students could find solutions for.”

Project Development Cycle

Chambers had her students work on projects that will go through the 5 steps:

  1. Brainstorm projects and write up a proposal.
  2. Work on project until completion date.
  3. Reflect on the project.
  4. Negotiate mark with teacher.
  5. Start Over


Chambers requires her students to complete a proposal that includes the following:

  1. The issue they will explore / come up with a solution.
  2. Step by Step instructions that include a completion date and mini goals to get there.
  3. At least 3 curriculum expectations that they will be covering as they complete the project.
  4. How many points their project is worth.

Chambers felt the proposal was a life safer, but on the other hand, it is also pain in the ass. She explains, “Once the proposals are complete, they are what keep the students on track and give them guidance. It makes them accountable and really helps them to stay motivated (for the most part). However, getting the proposals completed is tough. Since students have never mapped out their own learning before, they require a lot of guidance and help. It is really hard for me to give each person / group the attention they need. There is one of me and 30 of them!! So I have recruited some former students, friends of mine who work from home, our former VP who is now retired, and a set of grandparents to come in and help me with this process. This has been a huge help, especially in the brainstorming stage.”

Another challenge Chambers found is that “since the students started their projects at the same time, most students were finishing up their first projects all at once. This meant that I was having to negotiate / conference with students when they finished, but then they required help to get started on their next project proposal. This was very overwhelming for me, and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it!! But we all powered through and got them all going on a second project. I am finding that now that we are at the mid way mark, most students have such different deadlines, it makes it so much easier. I have the ability to negotiate with only a few groups a week, as well as helping those who need it on their next proposal or those who need help on the projects that they are working on.”  

One good thing Chambers says is that students can start their projects once the proposals are completed and approved. She had to run around to each table and was tired by the end of the day.

Chambers says it became unmanageable when “trying to figure out who was finishing up, who needed to work on their reflection, who needed to negotiate, and who was starting the process all over again”. She explained that “I had my students sharing their proposals with me in Google Classroom and was attempting to keep track of all of them there. I found this very difficult, so I decided to use the board below to keep myself and the students updated on who was at each stage. For a couple of weeks, I fixed this board up every morning and then would go over it at the beginning of each class. I found it very helpful for me for a bit and just recently found it hard to stay on top of. I have now abandoned this method and am trying out a new tracking method.”

Proposal Project Board Image
Project Board Proposal

Chambers’ new way of tracking where students are in the project is by having students “fill out a project list (they add their projects to it as they go), I ask that they hand write or print out a copy of their proposal, and I have created a file folder for each student to keep track of all of their projects”.  She said that “Now when they get a proposal approved, a copy of it goes into that folder, and I put what the project is, how much the project is worth, and when it will be completed into a spreadsheet. I have new whiteboards with every student on it with their project and dates, and I will update my whiteboards probably once every two weeks or so.”

Students List Image
Students List

Chambers’ final thoughts were “My next step is to create a Google form that I think I will fill out once the proposal is approved”. She explained that “I am hoping that this will provide me with a spreadsheet where I can sort the students and keep track of each of their projects etc. We will see how that goes.” She says, “We are very much in a trial by error / learn by failure situation in my classroom. If you have a PBL classroom and have any suggestions, I am SO open to any help you might give.”


The 8 Key Elements of Project Based Learning are a look into what PBL consists of. I will dive into more PBL subjects in the future. I hope Rebecca Chambers experience helps you to start your PBL a little easier.

The Next Blog explores authenticity of a Project.

How to help Students Own How Well They Are Learning

How Well They are Learning Image


True student ownership begins when the teacher looks at assessment from the point of view of the student. That is assessment for learning.

Robert Crowe and Jane Kenney define the student’s ability to understand when they are learning and struggling, as assessment. It directly relates to the learning as determined in the curriculum, and to the strategies as determined in instruction.

Once students know what they are learning, they will also know

Students can then identify-every step of the way-if they are learning and struggling.

It shows students know the value of consistent checking for understanding and when they need help.

Putting Ownership of Assessment into Practice

What does student ownership look like, and sound like, when a student owns their part in assessment? What is the difference between a student who is simply doing or understanding assessment and one who owns how well they are learning?

Crowe and Kennedy describe the difference between a student who is simply doing or understanding assessment and one who owns how well they are learning as the following:

  • A student is doing when they can state how they will finish the task in front of them.
  • A student understands when they can explain how they are learning.
  • A student is owning how well they are learning, when they can articulate if they are learning or struggling, and why, what to do if they are learning or struggling, and how assessing their learning helps them learn more.

Crowe and Kennedy present an example of what this looks and sounds like on a continuum of doing-understanding-owning in 5th grade math:

How well are you Learning Image
5th Grade Math

A teacher can move a student toward ownership of their learning by strategically deciding when to offer the following three learning practices:

Strategic Learning PracticesEach student must respond to the following questionsReflection: How often and how well do you offer these supports?
Instruction 1: Each and every student is supported by data that is used to monitor current understanding and provide feedbackAre you learning, and how do you know? Are you struggling, and how do you know? How does checking for understanding and receiving feedback support your learning?Planned data checks are utilized to effectively monitor current student understanding of learning outcomes. Direct and specific feedback affirms current understanding of the relevant standards and measurable and achievable learning outcomes. Direct and specific feedback clarifies or redirects current understanding and builds toward mastery of the relevant standards and measurable and achievable learning outcomes.
Instruction 2: Each and every student is supported by data that is used to monitor current understanding and adjust as neededAre you struggling, and how do you know? What supports might you need from the teacher? What strategies might you use to continue learning?Planned data checks are utilized to effectively monitor current student understanding of the learning outcomes. Information from data checks is used to consistently and effectively adjust instruction, building toward mastery of the relevant standards and measurable and achievable learning outcomes. Data is used to determine next steps, including reteaching. Data is used to determine next steps, including acceleration.
Instruction 3: Each and every student is supported by data that is used to differentiate based on predetermined student needs.What specific areas of need do you have? What supports might you need from the teacher? What strategies might you use to continue learning?All differentiation is planned and meets the predetermined needs of the identified student or students. All differentiation aligns directly to and builds toward mastery of the relevant standards and measurable and achievable learning outcomes. Reflection on the purpose and value of specific differentiated supports is required of students.
SLP Assessment Reflection

Strategic Learning Practices

In Strategic Learning Practices, authors lay out the following:

  • Clearly define each learning practice
  • Describe what implementation looks and sounds like in the classroom
  • Share teacher planning questions and offer examples of how students have been supported with these learning practices in various content areas and grade level
  • Explain how these practices directly lead to increased student ownership

Strategic Learning Practice, Assessment 3 as Example:

SLP 3 assessment Image
SLP Assessment 3

Each aspect of Assessment 3 practice defined:

  • Data is any information gathered to indicate if the student has any specific learning concerns.
  • Differentiate is the teacher’s action to adapt or modify instructional materials, instructional strategies, or instructional processes to meet the specific needs of specific students, so that students can be supported in attaining the learning outcome.
  • Predetermined includes all the data a teacher is privy to before planning the lesson. This could include a student’s IEP, English-learner status, previous assessment results, attendance, or anything pertinent in a student’s record.
  • Student needs are those specific learning issues identified on an IEP, the language level and abilities of an English Learner, misconceptions discovered from previous assessments, and gaps due to missed instructional time.

The Practice in Action

What it looks like in Mrs. Kumar’s third grade social studies class, and hearing the class discussing the learning outcome on the board:

“Students will describe examples of human modification of the environment by creating a community change poster.”

There are visuals next to the words human, modification, environment, and community. The resource teacher, Miss. Smith working with students.

How much did students understand in class discussion? What happens when you ask them questions about their learning?

You: “What are you learning?”

Ana: “I am learning about how people make changes.”

You: “What kind of changes do they make?”

Ana: “There was a farm here, but now it is a school. People did that.”

You: “I see you have a chart next to you with pictures and words. Does that help you?”

Ana: “I am from El Salvador and still need to learn some new English words. Mrs. Kumar gives me this. If I see a word I don’t know, the picture will help me. This is a hard word for me-construction. The picture helps me know it. Sometimes I know the word, but not in English. Mrs. Kumar uses pictures a lot to help us. You can see some on the board.”

Brian: “The pictures help me too. I have trouble remembering stuff. The pictures help me remember bigger words, or academic words, as Mrs. Kumar calls them.”

You: “What other ways does Mrs. Kumar help you?”

Ana: “We sometimes get to show what we are doing. And we draw. I also talk with my friends a lot. We have to do that a lot. We also get help with reading. I can work with a friend who will read it with me and ask me questions. I get to answer and practice what he read before I try to read it.”

Brian: “Mrs. Kumar gives me a sheet of paper that tells me the information I need to remember. Mrs. Kumar sits with me and goes over this information until I can remember it. I also get to take the paper home and have my mom work with me. Mrs. Kumar and Miss Smith are nice.”

You: “How will this help you with your community change poster?”

Ana: “I like art. Sometimes we get to pick what we do. I’m going to draw. I have learned lots of ways our community has changed. I am ready to show it on my post. I will use the new words I have learned. It is good to keep learning new words.”

Brian: “When I work with Miss Smith, she will help me find pictures for the information on my sheet. I can use these on my poster. The poster will help me remember things about communities.”

When you ask Mrs. Kuma, are you surprised that these students were so forthcoming about their specific needs? And how did they gain the confidence to talk about the support they need?

Mrs. Kumar said, “It is very important that each of my students understands their unique strengths and areas of need. We talk about the importance of understanding how we learn. They know that they can ask me, Miss. Smith, or one another for help. I remind them that asking for help when we struggle is something that we all do. In fact, I tell my students that if they aren’t struggling, then they aren’t learning something new. We all struggle. This helps when I differentiate for different students. Everyone gets the help they need.”

Implementing the Practice

Mrs. Kumar uses questions to help plan how she would offer support to her students. First, she had to determine the following:

  • What skill will my students learn, and how will they demonstrate they have learned it?

Mrs. Kumar explains, “We are in our social studies unit on geography and human systems. The expectations for this standard call for students to describe examples of human modifications to the environment in the local community. I have a diverse group of learners in my classroom. I have four English-learners students, three mainstreamed special needs students, and a variety of learners throughout the class. I know that I need to take into account all my students’ needs in order to meet the learning expectations. Not only do I need to provide the right supports, but I also need to make certain my students know what the supports are, why they are there, and how to access them as needed. For this lesson, there are many ways my students could demonstrate their understanding. I chose a poster because it will allow them to demonstrate learning at a variety of levels. Some will cut out pictures to show human modifications, some will draw and label, some will include a longer explanation. All students will share their poster and be required to use as much academic language as possible in explaining their learning.”

Mrs. Kumar also had to determine the following questions:

  • What current students data do I have to help plan the instruction?
  • What specific student needs must be addressed?

Mrs. Kumar continues, “At the beginning of the year, I spent time reading each students’ cumulative folder. I met with the special education teacher and reviewed my students’ IEPs. I also reviewed my students’ English-language-level data. This provided me with a baseline on each student. From there, I have carefully assessed them along the way to ensure I understand how they learn best, their areas of strength, and their areas of need. I have really amazing supports in my school, and I have relied on them to continually grow my repertoire of differentiated instructional strategies specific to different students’ needs.”

Mrs. Kumar had to ask herself the following questions:

  • How will I differentiate instruction based on specific student needs?
  • How will I ensure that the differentiated instruction directly aligns with the learning outcome?

Mrs. Kumar answers are as follows:

“I have some students who are at the intermediate level in English and need more academic-language-support. I have students with IEPs who have a variety of identified needs-including reading comprehension deficits, short-term memory issues, and auditory-processing concerns. I know I have to find alternative ways for all of these students to access key content. I know I need to chunk the content and provide multiple, varied opportunities for learning.”

“At the beginning of this lesson, I introduced the objective. You will see that I included visual supports for any words that may be new to my students. After I read the objective, we discussed the words. From there, I had the students choral read the objective a few times, and then discuss it with their peers. I had my students seated in groups, so there were always students of varying levels who could support one another.”

“The next portion of the lesson was vocabulary. Vocabulary acquisition is a key skill that supports the English Learners. It is also a key skill that supports struggling readers. I know that I need to plan various ways for them to understand these words. Some of the words we acted out, for others we use illustrations. We also made connections to words and concepts we already knew. This was just the beginning. We will use these words throughout the lesson in a variety of ways. For those students who need it. I have created a picture definition chart that they will keep on their desk throughout the unit.”

“We also needed to read some text from a social studies book. I needed to plan how I would differentiate this to support all of my learners. We started with a whole-class discussion on what we thought the text would inform us about and why. I then had my students determine how they would access the text. Some read the text independently and completed a graphic organizer on the main idea and key details from the text. Some students listened to an audio recording of the text before reading. Some students worked with partners. And some students worked in a group with me. For today’s lesson, I predetermined who would work with me. My students understand their strengths and needs, and can often make the choice themselves. They are quite good at making the right choices.”

Mrs. Kumar wanted her students to use the skills in a variety of situations and help her students own this information, so that she could increase their probability of learning. To do this, she had to determine the following:

  • How will I share this information with my students?
  • How will I check that my students understand their progress toward the goals of the unit or lesson?

Mrs. Kumar says, “Every class has students with unique strengths and areas of needs. I think it is important that students understand what their strengths and needs are, as well as which ways they learn best. We constantly reflect on our learning. We discuss what we learned and how we learned it. We discuss ways we supported one another and learned from one another. I have a real community in this classroom. We continually discuss how we all learn differently and how when we all work together, we all get smarter.”

Mrs. Kumar wants to make sure her third graders understood the value of owning their own learning. Thus, she had to answer the following question:

  • How will my students understand that reflecting on the assessment of their learning supports ownership of their learning?

Mrs. Kumar explains, “When we discuss as a class how we learn each day, we spend time talking about how that approach supports us. The strategies I employ most often with this class-audio and visual cues, total physical responses, chunking, modeling, collaboration, leveled materials, varied demonstrations of learning-are supported for all learners. But this can’t be information I keep to myself. I need my students to understand what approach is being utilized and why. They need to understand how they learn best. My students are getting stronger with this each day. They can tell you, more often than not, what their strengths are, where they need support, and what helps them learn best and why.”

Final Thoughts

Crowe and Kennedy suggest think of your students. Where do they fall on the doing-understanding-owning continuum? Think about the support they need from you to develop student ownership. How often and to what degree do you offer these supports? What impact do you have on student ownership?

Crowe and Kennedy cited John Hattie (2011): “Such passion for evaluating impact is most critical lever for instructional excellence—accompanied by understanding this impact, and doing something in light of the evidence and understanding.” (pg. 116)